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UTEP Health Professions Students Benefit from Community Engagement

Last Updated on December 10, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published December 10, 2018

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

Before sunrise Oct. 17, Frances Paez joined 21 other UTEP students majoring in clinical laboratory science (CLS) to conduct screenings of dozens of individuals for high blood sugar, high cholesterol and anemia at the Opportunity Center for the Homeless in Downtown El Paso.

UTEP clinical laboratory science students Frances Paez, left, and Amanda Moore, right, participated in November’s U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week at Silva Health Magnet High School. They talked to high school students about appropriate antibiotic use and the spread of superbugs. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications
UTEP clinical laboratory science students Frances Paez, left, and Amanda Moore, right, participated in November’s U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week at Silva Health Magnet High School. They talked to high school students about appropriate antibiotic use and the spread of superbugs. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

Using small drops of blood from a finger stick — a technique students practiced in their hematology and clinical chemistry labs — Paez and her classmates checked participants’ blood sugar, cholesterol and hematocrit or red blood cell levels. They pricked participants’ fingertips with a lancet to collect a small amount of their blood in a capillary tube for testing.

Within a few minutes, participants received preliminary results on diseases such as diabetes that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“It’s very common to see people with sky-high blood glucose levels when we’re doing these screenings out in the community,” said Paez, who expects to graduate in May 2019.

UTEP clinical faculty members referred individuals with abnormal or elevated glucose and cholesterol levels to San Vicente Family Health Center for follow-up care.

“At these community events, not only do we get to apply what we are learning, but we also get to see people and make a little more of a positive impact in the health care system,” Paez said.

Community outreach has played a vital role in the preparation of health professionals at The University of Texas at El Paso. Most of the 4,500 students enrolled in UTEP’s health-related programs are from El Paso. Many of them will remain here to practice professionally after graduation.

Community-based activities such as health fairs and health screenings provide educational opportunities for nursing, health sciences and pharmacy majors to practice their skills and provide much-needed health services before transitioning into the workforce. Students also learn a valuable lesson about giving back.

“This is a learning experience for students because they get to interact with people and understand their point of view, which makes the event more meaningful to them,” said Elizabeth Camacho, CLS clinical coordinator.

Since the 2018 summer semester, CLS students have performed nearly 300 screenings throughout the community, including the Canutillo Health Fair and at GECU and Western Refining with the Hospitals of Providence.

They also joined social work, rehabilitation sciences, rehabilitation counseling and speech-language pathology students at the Community Health and Wellness Fair at Tornillo High School. More than 600 residents from El Paso’s Mission Valley attended the annual event in March 2018.

“Seventy-five percent of the decisions made on a person’s diagnosis and treatment comes from the lab,” said Lorraine Torres, Ed.D., CLS program director. “Clinical lab professionals work in a lab and don’t get to see how they help patients. But when CLS students go out into the community, they connect with people and get to see the impact they will have on people’s health.”

Caring for the Community

In the School of Nursing’s Population-Focused Care class, undergraduate students in their final semester of the nursing program apply their knowledge and skills to help in the community and in public schools.

In September, more than 100 students were certified as hearing and vision screeners through the Texas Department of State and Health Services. They help school nurses test hundreds of children and adolescents in Texas public schools during the school year for hearing and vision problems.

“The school nurse is the only one in the school performing these state-mandated screenings,” explained Carla Ellis, UTEP clinical nursing instructor. “The majority of our students will go into the schools during the fall and spring semesters and assist with these screenings. And students with this certification can continue volunteering in schools after they graduate, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Students in the class also participate in a mock health fair. They conduct community health assessments, create education boards and practice their presentations to prepare for community events. Students have screened Opportunity Center residents for depression, high-risk substance use and high-risk sexual behavior.

Ellis said students strengthen their communication skills and boost their self-confidence thanks to the patient education they provide to the public.  

The future nurses also take advantage of the volunteer opportunities through UTEP’s Texas Nursing Students' Association (TNSA). Between 60 percent and 70 percent of students in the undergraduate nursing program volunteer through TNSA. They perform blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) checks and raise awareness about diabetes, tobacco cessation and heart disease at public events such as the El Paso Downtown Artist and Farmers Market.

On the third Saturday of the month, eight TNSA students volunteer at the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence (CASFV). They work with nurse practitioners to provide health and wellness checkups for children staying at the center. Students also increase their awareness of family violence by looking for signs of potential or existing abuse.

“Helping at the CASFV clinic has given me hands-on experience with the pediatric population that I would not have gotten otherwise,” said Elie Felix, a seventh semester nursing student and CASFV clinic coordinator. “I learned how to assess a pediatric patient and how to take vitals in the clinic before it was introduced to me as part of the UTEP curriculum. I feel that this experience will help me to be a better provider overall because it has made me more empathetic.”

A Community of H.O.P.E.

In October 2018, 174 UTEP health sciences, nursing and pharmacy students teamed up to offer free health screenings to Opportunity Center residents at the H.O.P.E. (Health Opportunity Prevention and Education Project) Plus Health Fair.

Students from nursing, pharmacy, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy and clinical laboratory science screened 169 residents for diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other conditions.

According to Social Work Associate Professor Eva Moya, Ph.D., H.O.P.E. is a community of practice for students, faculty, and community partners that offers a bridge to community-based learning at the undergraduate and graduate level to understand and address homelessness and health disparities in a border binational community.

The health fair enabled students such as Destiny Miramontes from the graduate social work program to collaborate with different health majors. Students learned from each other, the population they served and from the community organizations they work with.

“Collaboration is a major factor because different departments come together and practice their social skills,” Miramontes said. Social work collaborated with occupational therapy on an arts and crafts station. “This is a great learning experience because (students) are able to self-reflect and analyze their strengths and weaknesses as future professionals.”

Physical therapy and nursing students provided 41 foot screenings. Pharmacy students collaborated with Walgreens and the El Paso Immunization Coalition to provide 47 flu vaccinations.

Moya said the health fair at the Opportunity Center allowed students to effectively translate the cognitive skills they developed in the classroom into practical application in an experiential learning environment, while providing much-needed services to persons experiencing health inequalities and homelessness.

“High-impact practices such as community-based learning and service are essential for assessing students’ educational growth and ability to address social determinants of health among vulnerable and resilient populations,” Moya said.